October 8, 2010 — With newsrooms from the New York Times to NBC laying off scores of journalists and struggling to find a profitable business model, what does this crisis in journalism mean for our democracy? What should we do about it, if anything? Will evolving technology and the marketplace sort everything out?
Such questions, along with discussions of privacy in the age of targeted online advertising, occupied more than 20 speakers at the Verklin Media Policy and Ethics Conference at the University of Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday.
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Few neat answers arose, but many participants expressed excitement about how the conference brought together, for the first time, veterans of the media world with experience across industry, policymaking and academic spheres.
"Forest fires start from a single match; who knows what we've started here," said U.Va. alumnus and conference sponsor David Verklin, chief executive officer of Canoe Ventures, an advanced television company created by the country's leading cable companies, who has more than 32 years of experience leading media and advertising companies.
Conference participants largely agreed about the nature of the crisis in journalism, driven by "technology-enabled changes in consumer behavior," as Ed Swindler, executive vice president and chief operating officer for ad sales at NBC Universal, put it.
The rise of Internet-era businesses like Craigslist and eBay have eviscerated traditional newspaper revenue sources like classified and display advertisements and subscriptions. The newspaper industry, in 2000, generated $48 billion in advertising, but by 2020 is projected to generate just $16 billion, Swindler said.
U.Va. alumnus Wyatt Andrews, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" (also a U.Va. alumna) who has taught U.Va. media studies classes, shared some on-the-ground perspective on the impact of newsroom funding cuts.
As the only CBS News reporter with no prescribed beat, Andrews is free to cover whatever he chooses, including major investigative reports that take weeks or months to complete. He recently finished two such reports: one on how millions of Americans have been suckered into buying fake health insurance, and a second on outrageous failures in the system of promised education benefits for disabled veterans.
CBS News has laid off 100 people, including all three of his producers in the Washington office, forcing him to borrow time from his colleagues' producers. "It works and it's efficient," he said, but his producers were "among the very best in the business," multiple-Emmy winners who spoke six languages, had covered most of the major events of the past 25 years and represented 70 years of cumulative experience in TV news. One of them had found the story on education benefits for disabled veterans through her contacts at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Such talent losses are magnified across the entire media industry, he said.
But Andrews also pushed back against the notion that the old "Big Media" regime of network news was on the brink of total collapse. Their public interest reporting is "eroding, but not dead." He noted that, with three months left in the calendar year, CBS News had already spent its full year's news budget because it extensively covered the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the earthquake in Haiti – two stories that were expensive to cover, but were so big, "we couldn't not cover them."
He also predicted that the major TV networks will never do away with their news divisions because of the longstanding requirement that TV broadcasters fulfill a "public interest" in exchange for their use of the public airwaves.
Some of the debate in Thursday morning's panel on "How Can We Re-Invigorate Journalism and the Public Sphere?" boiled down to advocates of the free market versus those more skeptical that the marketplace alone can – or ever has – provided all the reporting needed for a healthy democracy.
Mike Allen, chief political correspondent for Politico, pointed out that some of the world's best reporting has come from private, commercial news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post. (The latter two papers were his employers at earlier points in his long career, which began at the Washington & Lee University student newspaper and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)
While Allen claimed that today there is more high-quality reporting, from more sources, than ever before in his 20-plus years in the industry, Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, cited a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that compared news reporting in Baltimore in 1991, 1999 and 2009 and found that newspapers still provide the bulk of original reporting and did far less of it in 2009 than in 1991.
As in the health care industry – where private insurance manages and delivers the great majority of American health care, but public programs like Medicare and Medicaid provide a safety net for those who private insurance fails to serve – Carpini said there needs to be government support for the types of media, like in-depth investigative reporting, that have traditionally not been economically self-sustaining. Just like health care, such reporting is a valuable public good, he argued.
Even Swindler, who argued that great journalism must rely upon the foundation of an independent, profitable business model, acknowledged both the societal benefits of in-depth investigative journalism and that the market might not provide it because it's so costly and only a small portion of the populace pays attention to it, limiting its revenue-generating potential.
That observation prompted panelists to discuss the role of education in creating an informed populace that responsibly consumes information and demands good reporting.
Andrews and others noted the blurring in recent years of the traditional divide between fact-based news and opinion, and Swindler suggested there should be a sort of "Consumer Reports" on the media to help the public differentiate the two.
Free market skeptics Carpini and Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, pointed out that the government has always been deeply involved in the free market and media, going back to the earliest days of America.
During Thomas Jefferson's time, when much of the mail carried by the Post Office was newspapers, he advocated that they receive free postage, arguing that not doing so amounted to the censoring of competing viewpoints, New York University professor Victor Pickard explained. Such a move might be considered socialist today, Pickard said, but we should not forget our history.
We are in the midst of "the biggest communications revolution ever," one that dwarfs the reach of the invention of the printing press, Cooper said, noting that 60 percent of the world's population has a cell phone, and those phones are rapidly becoming mobile computing platforms connected to the Internet.
Because the media world is in the midst of a sea change, said Bruce Williams, U.Va. professor of media studies and one of the conference organizers, decisions made in the coming few years about how to structure, promote and regulate our media will have profound consequences on what our media landscape looks like 20 or 50 years from now.